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POULTNEY — After Saturday’s premiere of "Dancing at Lughnasa" at Stone Valley Arts in Poultney, I asked director Meg Bouchard what guided her production. Her response was quick: “To showcase the people I love!”

The play was three weeks from opening in 2020 when COVID shut down the theater. And so the cast of eight has been living and breathing this play for three years, rehearsing it in Bouchard’s living room, steeping in its rhythms and depth of feeling — all of which emerges in this brilliant, heartfelt production.

If you love theater — even if you only like it — trek over to Poultney and see a quiet wonder: confident, charming actors taking on a complex play with the aplomb of Broadway performers.

Bouchard highlights the play's genesis: playwright Brian Friel seeing homeless people along the banks of the Thames River. That had been the fate of his two aunts, he thought. They had disappeared from his small Irish village, never to return. His playwright friend Tom Kilroy suggested Friel write a play about it.

Friel creates "Dancing at Lughnasa" as a memory play (akin to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie), set in summer, 1936, told from the viewpoint of a boy, Michael (Tristan Larson), now grown. Given its roots, the play has a melancholic undertow, but the fierce spirit and love of the five Mundy sisters infuse the play.

Kate (Kate Kelly), the eldest and sternest, teaches at the local school, but we learn she’s on the verge of dismissal. She strives to keep the family on a narrow Christian path, but sneaks a Woodbine cigarette now and again. Her one moment dancing in the play — repressed as it is — hints at a wilder self. Kelly crosses her hands over her breast and purses her lips, but her legs have a life of their own.

Maggie (Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman) puffs on her Woodbines, offers riddles to Michael (despite his apathetic “Give up” rejoinder), and sings lilting songs (dismissed as “pagan” by Kate). Chesnut-Tangerman imbues the role with mischievousness, flashing smiles, sliding easily into song, making her the aunt you might wish for in your family.

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Agnes is played by director Meg Bouchard, stepping in for a cast member who departed late in rehearsals, necessitating a delayed opening. Bouchard plays Agnes flawlessly. Less repressed than Kate, she nonetheless channels her feelings into her knitting until released into two memorable dances.

Rose, played by Rainbow Squier, bursts with youthful exuberance. In the script, Rose is not the youngest sister, but Squier’s Rose seems so — coquettishly dropping her chin but raising her eyes and defiantly meeting a married man.

Chris (Helen Gassenheimer) has a “love child” (Michael) with Gerry Evans (Wheaton Squier). Gassenheimer nicely plays the tension of Chris’ situation: she loves the dreamer, the father of her child, but resists his charm, knowing that his promises of marriage and a bicycle for Michael are as light as air.

Uncle Jack (Charles Stevens) is a wild card thrown into this domestic situation: a priest recently returned from Uganda who seemingly has gone native and stumbles forward, striving to overcome malaria, his own shaky English and his love of native ceremonies.

Yes, the play has its narrative tensions. Will the sisters go to the festival of Lughnasa to celebrate the harvest, as the Mundy girls did long ago? Will Chris succumb to Gerry’s dreamy charms and run off with him? What will happen to Rosie and her would-be lover? Will the radio (named Marconi) ever play right? And will the Mundy sisters keep their subtle Irish accents throughout? (Yes, they will — this last question the result of my hearing too many accents fade as plays progress.)

One of the joys of this production is evocation of an idea central to Friel (and fellow countryman Samuel Beckett): the shortcomings of language. Yes, Friel’s language can be brilliantly lyrical, but it may be employed, paradoxically, to suggest language’s very limits. In Michael’s moving closing monologue, Tristan Larson’s restraint draws in the audience: “And what is so strange about that memory is that everybody seems to be floating on those sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete isolation … Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.”

The dance stands in for the play, a ceremony enacted most strikingly in the primeval, flour-throwing dance of the first act. In this production, director Meg Bouchard and her players create a ceremony that will last in memory long after the last words are uttered.


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